Small Wars Journal


Mon, 08/06/2018 - 12:33am


Sophia Kostopoulos

This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.


To predict learning in 2050, we must observe learning now in 2018; the technologies of learning, the culture of learning, and the audience of learning.

The technologies of learning are differentiated from the method of learning, such as online/self-study, in-person/classroom, and hands-on.  This allows the focus to be on the changes in technologies used for learning, while the methods of learning remain unchanged.  The history of learning is reviewed to demonstrate the shift in the culture of learning from self-directed study to structured education and back to self-directed study.  The audience of learning examines the students of today and 2050 to evaluate the meaning of basic knowledge.  The gap between students within the same generation is impacted by the level of technology incorporated into the K-12 curriculum and the impact of technology on society.

It is essential that conversations on learning embrace the fact that changes to learning now will be established by 2050.  This transforms the question from “What will learning in the military be like in 2050?” to “What changes in learning now are taking place and need to take place in order for learning in the military in 2050 to be what is desired and required?”.

The Technologies of Today

There are several established and emerging technologies available today that can and are being used to support learning.  However, they are not being used to their full potential.

The Internet has provided a large resource of knowledge and data in the form of online books, wikis, videos, blogs, and websites.  This has made self-study and do-it-yourself projects easier.  In the military, online training services are available on training websites such as Total Workforce Management Services (TWMS).

Interactive graphics and animations can turn lecture slides into a storytelling adventure.

Online learning, also referred to as e-learning, makes use of learning management systems such as Blackboard[1] and massive open online courses[2] (MOOCs) such as edX and Coursera.  These technologies turn online resources into structured courses and quizzes with finite results, such as course or specialization certificates, that prove understanding and ability in a topic or skill.

Modeling and Simulation (M&S) uses the power of computing to demonstrate the result of a physical phenomenon.  These phenomena can be taught on-demand without the requirements of the physical models or conditions.

Gamification of learning is using game development technologies to create serious games that provide hands-on and context related knowledge.  Referred to as game-based learning or g-learning, these serious games can be online or offline.  Some training products on TWMS make use of this technology.

Autonomous learning is self-directed study with minimal external guidance from instructors or peers.  Both e-learning and g-learning can be examples of autonomous learning, as well as learning from the vast Internet resources.  This concept places the learning plan and pace in the hands of the students, allowing them to choose what classes to take and when to work on them.

Robotics is the field of programmable machines.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programs have led to the development of robotic products that make learning easier, such as the Ozobot[3], LEGO MindStorms[4], and CoDronePro[5].

Mobile devices and the applications, referred to as Apps, that are developed for them, offer e-learning and g-learning options, and even connect to robotics products for accelerated learning.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that uses a digital design to create a physical object.  Some schools are already using 3D printers in their lessons with products such as Kideville[6] and 3D printer loan programs from the Create Education Project[7].

4D printing is 3D printing with the ability for the printed objects to reshape or self-assemble over time.  This emerging technology could be used to demonstrate the impact of environmental conditions, such as heat, water[8], and humidity, on a variety of materials.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), also referred to as machine intelligence (MI), is intelligence demonstrated by machines or programs.  Microsoft[9] and Google[10] have developed AI tools and platforms that accelerate tasks to perform research, generate results, and develop products faster and more efficiently.  These tools can also be used in the field of data science to generate information from large, disparate datasets.

Virtual Reality (VR) is the emulation of reality, usually presented through a computer-generated environment.  VR could emulate school chemistry labs to allow more dangerous ones to be taught without the risk of injury.  VR could be used for geology and astronomy lessons, and even virtual field trips.

Augmented Reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment whose elements are enhanced with computer-generated information.  AR has been used to enhance gym classes in schools and keep the students enthused.[11]

Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is used in movie visual effects and can be used in gamification, M&S, and VR to augment learning.

Synthetic training environments combine synthetic, or fake, and real elements to create an environment or experience.  A combination of robotics, 3D printing, AI, and AR can be incorporated in a physical training environment to create a synthetic training environment simulating potential scenarios.

The Culture of Learning

The evolution of learning has progressed from self-directed play and exploration to homeschooling to a more universal, compulsory classroom schooling.  The number of years and classes required for K-12 education has increased over the years.  The context has moved from hunting skills and knowledge of plants, to home economics, religion, and how to read and write, to mathematics, chemistry, biology, and languages.  With each generation, more subjects and fields of study have been incorporated in the K-12 curriculum.  However, some emerging fields have taken priority over more basic necessities.  Students enter adulthood without an understanding of laws, taxes, or even financial matters.  Students spend a significant part of their week in the classroom or doing homework for the compulsory school.  If time permits, students use technology to self-direct their study on subjects that interest them.  School then begins to feel wasteful since it takes time away from gaining the knowledge and skills that are wanted and needed.

The world now is one with all knowledge and tools at your fingertips.  In an environment where any question can be answered by Google or Wikipedia, structured education that teaches to a standardized test proves nothing and has become outdated.  Higher education follows a similar culture and is almost removed from reality.  Students can spend years studying and researching, but if they are not in the industry, their theory could prove useless to actual society.  Even what society wants isn’t always what they truly need.  With the buzz of certain technologies, people fund, research and develop trends that won’t provide as much benefit as less popular, and usually underfunded technologies.  The higher education curriculum is focused on foundational and theoretical material causing a heavy reliance in on-the-job training and vendor-specific certifications for knowledge and skills in real world applications of that subject.  This learning is usually external to the classroom and at the responsibility and expense of the student.

Even in the workplace, employers have reduced the number of higher education degrees, vendor-specific certifications, and even conferences that are funded for employees.  With webinars and MOOCs, continuing education is more affordable and flexible to allow for a work-life balance that makes employers more willing to fund them.

In compulsory school and optional higher and continuing education, the culture is visibly shifting to self-directed study.  The individual seeks out the training they want and pursues it at the time and pace that works for them.

The Students of the Future

A person born in 14 years (2032) will be 18 years old in 2050 and could join the military and need to be trained, let’s call the person “enlisted”.  A person born in 10 years (2028) will be 22 years old in 2050 and could join after college and need to be trained, let’s call the person “officer”.  A person born today (2018) will be 32 years old in 2050 and could be the one training the new recruits, let’s call the person “trainer”.

What will basic knowledge consist of in the future?  The K-12 curriculum is the basic knowledge every citizen should learn.  If the K-12 curriculum changes in the next 5 years, the trainer, officer, and enlisted can benefit from it.  If the curriculum changes in the next 15 years, the officer and enlisted can benefit from it.  If the curriculum changes in the next 19 years, the enlisted can benefit from it.

Changes to the curriculum are already visible today with new subjects and learning technologies.  The fundamentals of new technologies such as computing, programming, and robotics are already being introduced in K-12 electives and after school programs.  Computers are essential for learning today, as teachers assign students Internet research projects, PowerPoint presentations, and accept assignments through Google Docs.  However, learning technologies can do so much more.  The students of the future are not biased to our current system of learning.  If the curriculum starts to change now, future students can graduate not just with knowledge but experience.

  • Not just learn geography, but experience VR tours of other cities and countries.
  • Not just learn history, but to witness animated re-enactments of key events in history.
  • Not just learn chemistry, but complete chemical labs in a serious game that simulates the chemical experiments.
  • Not just play sports, but understand the anatomy of their own body, how to safely perform athletics to avoid injury, as well as what to do if an injury occurs.
  • Not just learn first aid but perform first aid in a chaotic AR environment with a robot patient.

The students of the future can have a K-12 curriculum that provides hands-on, real-world applications to each lesson to better prepare them for adulthood.

The Gap Within Each Generation

Technologies may be prevalent in society and prove useful as learning mediums.  However, within each generation there is a gap in the familiarity on these technologies.  Here is an example scenario to demonstrate one of the challenges of using technology in learning.

The military develops a serious game for the Xbox based on the experience of current and prior military members as well as specific military events.  Its goal is to pass the knowledge of previous military members on to the new recruits in a fast and hands-on manner that will better prepare them for the field.  Two 18-year olds are recruited in the military: “Recruit A” and “Recruit B”.

Recruit A grew up around technology and is familiar with the Xbox console and video game syntax.  Recruit B did not grow up around technology, for any one of many plausible reasons, and is therefore unfamiliar with the Xbox console and video game syntax.

Recruit A is able to complete the serious game and learn the intended material quickly.  Recruit B first needs to learn the mechanics of the Xbox console and syntax of video games, such as the sequence to reload a gun in the game.  The high learning curve results in longer time to complete each lesson, anxiety at being slower than the other recruits, and frustration at finding the game so difficult when even a child can do it.  Recruit B completes the exercise with knowledge and experience in the Xbox console and video game syntax.  However, only about half of the intended lesson was received due to the training medium being unfamiliar.

When evaluating the military learning game, Recruit A would prove it to successfully meet its goal.  With Recruit B, it may prove unsuccessful and traditional classroom training may have been better.

The gap between students correlates to the level of technology in their childhood and K-12 curriculum.  Learning technologies become an obstruction to learning if the technologies are not familiar to the students.

The Burden of Adult Education

If the K-12 curriculum does not adapt, the burden will fall on higher education and employers to bridge between the K-12 curriculum and real-world applications.  The military will have to choose between additional training for recruits or placing them in billets before they are ready; risking both lives and national security.

With technology so prevalent in society, a minimum standard of cyber hygiene should also be included in the K-12 curriculum.  The Internet is connected to many infected assets, most of which are ignorant of the harm they are spreading.  Predictable risks such as this, that are ignored due to cognitive biases, are referred to as pink flamingos[12].

The “Safe at Home”[13] pink flamingo is an instance of adversaries attacking soldiers and their families via social media and other cyberspace means.  However, if all citizens were taught basic cyber hygiene, then we could actually be “Safe at Home”.  More importantly, the burden wouldn’t fall on the military to educate soldiers and their families on self-protection outside of military duties and assets.

The Technology Trap

To ensure learning in 2050 is sustainable, we need to avoid technology traps.  A technology trap[14] is when you rely so heavily on technology that when one technology fails, the contingency for that technology is another technology or a skill that is outdated and forgotten due to technology dependence.

With each generation, these traps impact more people.  Young drivers will panic when the battery in their key fob dies because they think they are locked out of their car; when in reality, the key fob has a key part that fits in the keyhole on the car door.  To avoid falling into a technology trap, which can be considered a pink flamingo, we must have at least the fundamental understanding of what technology is doing for us.  Military training should not just include new technologies but also how to avoid or respond to technology traps.

Learn. Practice. Repeat.

Learning in the military in 2050 could be a continuous process inspired by concepts presented in the movie Live.Die.Repeat.[15].  The first wave of soldiers to encounter the enemy will relay their experience back to an AI-assisted curriculum development system.  This system will gamify the data from the first wave into a serious game for the soldiers in the next wave to train on before heading out.  The third wave will have the experience of the first two, the 4th of the first three, and so on.  Creating a continuous learning cycle of Learn Fight.Repeat. Although some may return from a battle with injuries, adding a step to the process: Learn.Fight.Recouperate.Repeat.

This learning cycle can continue or, for emerging topics, begin in the professional military education setting with Learn.Practice.Repeat. stages.  At the home-station, on-the-job training will fill any gaps and build upon the military education curriculum with a Learn.Work.Repeat. cycle.

This flexible and continuous method provides real-time situational awareness at all levels; the soldier on the battlefield, the soldier at the home-station, the soldier in professional military education, and the leaders at all junctures.  In this environment of constant access to the latest experiences and knowledge of the military as a whole, soldiers and leaders are required to have good logic skills to grasp the situation from the data and good risk management skills to understand the potential risks of each decision path.  If each soldier and leader had the skills required of a strategist or tactician, then they would have the ability to grasp the situation they are in to better understand, predict, and prepare for the orders that they will be given.  These skills provide three main outcomes: the knowledge for situational awareness, the intelligence to use the knowledge, and the flexibility to quickly adapt not just from changes but from the prediction of those changes.  This seamless coordination creates a unified military force that is data-rich yet efficient, and flexible yet strong.


Observing the technologies of learning, the culture of learning, and the audience of learning demonstrate a shift to self-directed study.  Many technologies today have the ability to augment intelligence, accelerate learning, and increase efficiency.  In this technology centric world, learning needs to be at the speed of thought, in a continuous process of learning and practicing for students, and creating and updating the curriculum for teachers.

Only then can learning in 2050 be a continuous, adaptive cycle of Learn. Practice. Repeat.

End Notes
















Categories: Mad Scientist

About the Author(s)

Sophia Kostopoulos is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and an engineer at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWARSYSCEN) Atlantic. Her work is in the fields of information assurance, programming, radio frequency (RF) communications, and systems engineering. She mentors high school and college students in cybersecurity, and writes on future


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